Chairman Mao was not the world’s finest naturalist. But he was a man of action. Thinking that four kinds of pests were hindering his “Great Leap Forward” he decided to eradicate them all. Rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows all had to go. Sparrows earned Mao’s enmity because they eat grain and grain seeds and so, Mao thought, disrupted Chinese agriculture. He declared war on sparrows. Literally. He said: “Here is the method — we make our resolution, we coordinate our actions, we divide our tasks, we cut off the food supply, we set up a trap and we continue our battle of destruction.”
From a Shanghai newspaper, December 13, 1958:
“The Whole City Is Attacking the Sparrows.”
” “On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began. In large and small streets, red flags were waving. On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People’s Liberation Army shouting their war cries. . . .In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labor force was mobilized into the anti-sparrow army. Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch. The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels. . . .150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows. The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques of shooting birds. Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows. By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed.”
All over China people were banging pots and pans, waving flags and disrupting the lives of sparrows. Sparrow nests were torn down, eggs broken, sparrows and their nestlings killed by the millions. Literally. The People’s Daily exhorted the citizenry, “No warrior shall be withdrawn until the battle is won. All must join battle ardently and courageously; we must persevere with the doggedness of revolutionaries.” Radio Peking played an anthem, “Arise, arise, Oh millions with one heart; braving the enemy’s fire, march on.”
Nobody knows how many sparrows died but the number was in the millions.
Initially, the harvests improved, but too many sparrows were killed. Not enough survived to keep the locusts and grasshoppers in ecological balance. The insects devoured Chinese crops. In the resulting famine more than 35,000,000 people died of starvation.
The Great Sparrow War was over. Mao declared victory and called the whole thing off.
Mostly, the Chinese were killing Tree Sparrows, close relatives of House Sparrows. Tree Sparrows and humans probably started associating with one another about 10,000 years before Mao. It was around that time that humans in the Yellow River Valley began rice farming. It was also when people in the fertile crescent of the Middle East switched from hunting and gathering to farming wheat. What we now call House Sparrows in North America and English Sparrows in Northern Europe began living with those humans about that time. Sparrows and humans have been together ever since. BNA declares, “. . .a sparse population of House Sparrows largely indicates a sparse population of humans.” Said differently, where there are a lot of humans, there will be a lot of sparrows.
The Chinese aren’t the only ones who have tried to kill sparrows off. Mao should have studied North America’s history of trying to eradicate House Sparrows. He would have saved himself a lot of trouble and the crops might not have failed, at least not as catastrophically as they did.
House Sparrows did not live on the North American continent until the mid 1850s when some enterprising, ignorant people imported 100 of them from England to New York City. Helped along by organizations such as the “Cincinnati Acclimatization Society” which thought that the, “enobling influence of the song of birds will be felt by the inhabitants,” the sparrows spread. The sparrows were so successful that an Indiana newspaper declared in 1883, “Let them all be killed.”
We’ll be back with the rest of that tale.